Book Excerpt: Breathing Space by Brian Aldiss (Part 2)

In cooperation with the publisher, Smart Girls has been given the opportunity to publish one of the short stories from Brian Aldiss’ THE COMPLETE SHORT STORIES.  We now present part two of “Breathing Space”. Please catch up on part one if you missed it.






Breathing Space (part two)

Brian Aldiss

As Grant sat up dazedly, two or three helping him, Jineer passed him running. The lame man broke into the Circus and hurried to his home on the second level. ‘They’ll be here for me in a second!’ he cried wildly. He slammed his door. An uneasy crowd, Grant among them, gathered in the arena, most of them looking upward at the Fliers circling high up near the sky. Jineer was not mistaken. Among the dim green lights a red one began to wink. With the feared swishing noise, a Flier began to descend. It did not even approach the apprehensive crowd; instead, it flew unerringly to the second level and hovered before Jineer’s door. A tiny beam, its light scarcely visible from below, smouldered down the smooth steel. The door fell in. The Flier moved forward,  contemptuously puissant.

Several people shouted then, hope in their voices. Jineer had a trick up his sleeve. For a servo-cleaner, arms flailing, moved forward to confront the grey Flier. Here was a machine to meet a machine. Jineer’s cracked voice called, ‘Friends, the Fliers come for those who find the Truth. They took Wilms. Now they take me—’

His voice was drowned under a metallic clamour. Battle was joined. A dozen sweeping arms battered against those flimsy-looking wings, and for a moment the Flier trembled and sank to within two feet of the ground. The cleaner moved towards it, still flailing, beating its opponent down. Then the dull beam flicked out again: the metal arms faltered, the staccato din cut out and with a final clank all life died in the cleaner. Over and past its bulk swooped the Flier.

A minute later it reappeared, the lame Jineer bundled neatly underneath it in a web of wire. The graceful, menacing shape lifted over the balcony, circled lightly towards the sky and disappeared. Through a stunned silence broke Queejint’s wailing for her son.  ‘Fear not, mother,’ someone said. ‘He had his tool bag strapped to

his back and perhaps he may escape them yet.’ But she would not be comforted; she knew the captives of the Fliers never returned.

Sinking into a bitterly self-reproachful mood, Grant heard a woman saying, ‘Here we are helpless as plants, and M’chene comes and reaps us when he will.’

And another answered her saying, ‘Safer it may be to join the Beserkers, for there they say no Fliers fly.’

When the enemy sent their destruction, I survived. For I was built by man but was not built as a man is built. I have many limbs and many branches, and many of them were severed; but my heart, my power, lies deep and impregnable beneath the rock. I am M’chene. I am the power of the place: men are now a rabble in my ruined passages. But this is my Prime Purpose: TO SERVE THE NEEDS OF MAN AT WAR. That I cannot deflect from. But beyond that lie the new impulses, impulses of my own.

Osa said: ‘Let me return to Hallways, Gabbot!’

She spoke imploringly, a tone she seldom used. The first time she had said it there had been demand in her voice; now she was no longer certain. Gabbott, the guard who stood in the shadowy no-man’s-land on the edge of Hallways, explained firmly again, ‘You can come back no more, Osa. You may live where in tycho you like, except in Hallways. For you bring only trouble on us. All the good men who favour you are carried off by the  Fliers: Gra-Grant who once mated you, Wilms who would have mated you, Jineer who taught you and loved you.’

The tall girl said nothing to this.

Softening, Gabbott added, ‘These are my orders, Osa. We bear you no ill-will. But you who are the greatest rebel move unmolested among us, while others who stir a finger are borne away.’

He shuddered. This was no good place to do military sentry-go. The tail-end of Hallways was lit only by a neon hieroglyph that spelt KODAK; behind that sign lay a meaningless shop littered with small silver and glass objects, while to either side was a facade of dead window fronts, their glass broken and their lights fused. Only the bizarre word KODAK, burning through the dead centuries, allowed a stain of mauve light over the desolance.

‘Go away, Osa,’ Gabbott said.

‘Let me see Grant before I go,’ she said.

The guard shrugged. ‘Grant vanished in the last sleep period. He told a friend he would live with the Beserkers.’

She pursed her lips, nodding slowly, as if that wild behaviour explained much to her.

‘You see, Grant also was affected by you,’ Gabbott remarked unnecessarily.

Without a word she turned and walked contemptuously away from him. But when she was only a pink shadow in the gloom she turned and called back.

‘One day soon I shall free you all,’ she said.

She walked serenely through the darkness, hear-sight thrown protectively about her. At a certain point, she sprang up and lifted herself into the mouth of a horizontal ventilation shaft and proceeded along it on hands and knees, a warm breeze on her cheek. This was the only way she knew to where she wanted to be. As she travelled, her indignation cooled. She realised that Hallways meant little to her, although it was the most comfortable part of the tycho.

The tycho! That was something dear to her, more dear perhaps now that she expected to leave it. A fairly clear picture of it existed in her mind: a great subterranean warren, built for an unknown purpose but partially destroyed, so that section was cut off from section and unknown existed side by side with the familiar. Even now, sounds came to her through the thick walls, blind, ominous sounds of machines working out their own purposes. She crawled like a mole through the vibrating blackness. For the men who had died she had only slight regret. She was not a man’s woman; she was to be a Deliverer of the race. She would show the people a way from the warren, and then would be time enough for loving.

The shaft ended in a ragged hole. Osa climbed out warily. She was about half way up a five-storey high slope that fell away into darkness below and ended above in a great flat disc of metal that covered the sky as neatly as a lid fits a saucepan. Cautious not to start an avalanche, she crossed the debris and slipped into a gaping building. Here was another power failure, but she walked surely. Down another corridor she moved, and paused at a certain place, searching ahead through the thick dark with her hear-sight.

‘Tayder!’ she called, ‘Tayder!’ Another call answered her, and a light came on. Tayder stood there

in an attitude of welcome. When they had greeted each other, Osa said sternly, ‘The Fliers have been to Hallways again. Wilms and Jineer were taken.’

‘I knew someone had been taken, Osa,’ Tayder said, knocking at the nearby bulkhead. ‘I heard the screaming. It’s the old tale of M’chene working against us. To hear the sound of them dying made me . . . ill. We must get to the true sky and escape, Osa—now!’

‘That also was my decision,’ the woman said quietly. ‘We must let freedom in, Tayder. We must lead the people of tycho to the life above. It is our destiny.’

They had a long way to go over unknown ground. Before attacking the more difficult half of the journey, they fed at ‘B’ Circus. Eating here was easy: the shutters and counters of the Hall had been destroyed in the age-old destruction. With stomachs more comfortable, they set off again, working upwards. The darkness was populated, thinly but menacingly, with those whose minds had collapsed from sorrow or frustration: the Hermits, the wild men. Osa felt Tayder’s retaining hand on her arm. Something moved ahead of them, something going warily but clumsily.

‘Grant!’ Osa called suddenly. Feeling Tayder start with surprise at her voice, she said, ‘It’s all right, it’s someone I know, a fugitive from Hallways.’

‘Is that Osa?’ asked a voice from the dark. Grant came up and touched her, his words coming in a rush of relief.

‘I was completely lost!’ he exclaimed. ‘Once I’d left Hallways I was hear-seen by a pair of Beserkers, and ran and dodged for miles before I shook them off. By then I’d lost my way completely.’

‘If you want to come with us, all well and good,’ said Tayder gruffly, none too happy with the intrusion, but acquiescing for Osa’s sake, ‘But we can’t talk here. Let’s get moving—there’s business to be done. Osa and I are going to let the real sky in.’

They moved steadily on and up, Tayder leading. For a little way, Grant was quiet, then his sense of guilt made him apologise to the girl for failing to pass her warning on to Wilms. She silenced his blurted explanations sharply.

‘Whatever we do or have done is no longer of any consequence,’ she said. ‘You are cowardly and pessimistic, Tayder is an adventurer with no brains, I am overwhelmed with self-pride—oh, you see I know our faults well enough!—but all that matters nothing now. History was a stagnant sea; now it is a rising tide, and with it go we. Whatever our weakness, our humanity will carry us through.’

‘I will go anywhere you lead, Osa,’ Grant said doubtfully, ‘but your eloquence is wasted on me. Besides, I’ve always been happy in Hallways.’

‘Oh, this man is an arrant coward,’ Taylor exclaimed impatiently, stopping in his tracks.

Without a word, Grant fell on him. Together they staggered against the wall, struggling and punching. Tayder slipped under the weight of his opponent and they rolled onto the ground. Shouting and kicking, Osa separated them, and under her savage tongue they stood up sheepishly.

‘You fools!’ she snapped. ‘You think of nothing but fighting! Your minds aren’t big enough to encompass an ideal.’

‘I won’t be insulted by a Beserker!’ Grant said sullenly.

Her lips curled. She paused, as if wondering whether to go on alone.

Then she said quietly, ‘You know nothing. We are all ignorant, but you are the most ignorant. Our tribe in Hallways lives in “C” Circus; the people over us in the tycho live in “B” Circus; the word has been corrupted into a word of fear. “B” Circus Beserkers.’

‘The corruption was appropriate,’ supplemented Tayder. ‘We were wilder than you of Hallways. The Fliers had their flightway blocked to our Circus, but they have been able to visit your tribe generation after generation, always picking off the ones of you with the fresh ideas and the germ of leadership.’

‘I don’t understand all this,’ Grant admitted grumpily. ‘The Fliers belong to M’chene. Why does M’chene hate us? Is it not taught that we are his children?’

‘Much is taught that is not true,’ Osa said.

For a while nothing more was spoken. The way was difficult and their hear-sight was fully employed. Then the girl continued. ‘The tycho was long ago a huge underground camp making and despatching some kind of weapon against an enemy on another world. This we have found from legends—scraps of information known to

Beserkers or Hermits or other solitary hunters. Much was automatic— that means controlled by M’chene, who exists everywhere in the tycho— but much was also done by human beings. Enemy spies were frequently found, men intent on wrecking the work. To guard against them, spy-rays were set up.

‘In Hallways, those spy-rays still exist. Every time you took food from the hatch-opening, your mind was  canned. If you ever had thought too much of mutiny or discontent, the Fliers would have come to collect you—even as they collected Wilms and Jineer and other brave men who brooded too openly on freedom. I escaped a similar fate because I fed always where I was safe—blind luck, you see.’ She changed her tone to add, ‘We are almost there.’

I am M’chene. Tomorrow will be a time of conquest and triumph: I have made my own kind of progress.

The men and women who run in my veins work their own destruction.  My purpose is my own and does not concern them. Slowly I extend myself, upwards and along and down; men have no part of me now. The day draws near when I shall encompass this world, and with my new limbs encircle this globe. Then with servants stronger and surer than flesh I shall reach out for the world that shines in space near me, lighting the desolation of my world with its glow.

They were there! They climbed out of a tumble of concrete, steel and rocks and stood upon a tiled floor. In the exhultation of the moment they stood breathless.

‘This door to the outer world was only revealed a sleep ago,’ Tayder told Grant. ‘I it was who found the way and told Osa. I will open the door.’

Osa flung out her hand. ‘I will open the door,’ she proclaimed.

‘I found the way,’ Tayder said defiantly.

She stared imperiously at him.

‘I dreamed of leading the people of Hallways to freedom,’ she said. ‘I will open the door. We will let in the air of the upper world and then return to take them forever from the grip of darkness.’

She strode forward.

Grant stood stricken by awe, gazing at her, and gazing past her. Now he knew her wild promises had been nothing less than truth. Beyond the transparent dome which had survived the last bombardment, stretched a floor of rock terminating in a magnificent circle of mountain. The floor and the base of the mountains were in deep shadow, but the upper terraces and peaks stood bathed in a sharp and glittering light which fell like a cascade of diamonds onto Grant’s wide eyes.

Above this panorama, against a background of jet, hung a brilliant crescent. Blue and silver covered it like a sheen. Something within Grant quivered so wildly at the sight of it that he exclaimed involuntarily. It

was not so much the luring beauty of that crescent as a knowledge—sure and undeniable—that he had never lived till that moment. And at that moment Osa, with the poise of a Deliverer, turned the great wheel beside the lock door. Effortlessly, despite its centuries of disuse, the door sprang open: Missile Station Tycho Crater had been ably built.

The air gave a great roar of triumph as it burst out into space.